Jun. 20, 2013


by Paul Muldoon

Only a few weeks ago, the sonogram of Jean's womb
resembled nothing so much
as a satellite map of Ireland:

now the image
is so well-defined we can make out not only a hand
but a thumb;

on the road to Spiddal, a woman hitching a ride;
a gladiator in his net, passing judgement on the crowd.

"Sonogram" by Paul Muldoon, from The Annals of Chile. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Eighteen-year-old Alexandrina Victoria became Queen of England on this date in 1837. "Drina," as she was known to her family, had a fairly quiet childhood. She kept a diary, so we know a lot about her private life. She was a lively and sometimes mischievous child, and she was well educated, but her mother was overprotective and kept her isolated at Kensington Palace in London.

When she was born, she was fifth in line for the throne behind her uncles and her father, and no one expected her to become a monarch. But one by one, her uncles and their heirs died, and by 1830, she was heiress presumptive, next in line for the crown. The dawn hours of June 20, 1837, brought the news her uncle King William the Fourth died, and she was now a queen. Her first demand was that she be given a room of her own and stop having to share with her mother.

She remains Britain's longest-ruling monarch, having reigned for 63 years, seven months, and two days.

On this date in 1840, Samuel Morse received a patent for his system known as "Morse code." During a demonstration of one of his early telegraph machines, he met Alfred Vail, a young mechanical engineer, who became his assistant.

The telegraph works by sending an electromagnetic signal over a wire. Morse had an idea that the current could be used to move a pencil along a moving strip of paper, but Vail simplified it by suggesting a cheaper and more practical alternative: an arm that would bounce up and down, tapping out messages. It was actually Vail, not Morse, who came up with the first dot-and-dash system of language, with each letter and number being made up of a different combination of long and short sounds or flashes. Vail's first message using his code was, "A patient waiter is no loser." But Morse was the better known of the two inventors, and it was his name on the patents, and that's why we call it "Morse Code" and not "Vail Code."

It's the birthday of American playwright Lillian Hellman (books by this author), born in New Orleans (1905).

At the age of 26, she wrote The Children's Hour — which premiered on Broadway in 1934 — about a pompous boarding school student who damaged the reputations of the two school directors by accusing them of having a lesbian relationship. The play was a sensation on Broadway but it was banned in many places, including Boston, Chicago, and London. When it was shunned by the Pulitzer Prize committee because of its content, critics formed the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as a way to honor it.

During the McCarthy hearings, Hellman's longtime lover, the detective writer Dashiell Hammett, went to jail because he was a member of the Communist Party. Hellmann offered to accompany him, but he refused. When she was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950, she refused to name names. She read a prepared, and now famous, speech in which she said: "To hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable. I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions."

It's the birthday of poet Paul Muldoon (books by this author), born in Portadown, Ireland (1951). His father dug ditches for a living, and could barely read or write. The only book his family owned was The Junior World Encyclopaedia, so it became Muldoon's favorite book. He began to write poems in grade school as a way to get out of one of his teacher's weekly essay assignments.

After college, Muldoon began publishing books of poetry and supporting himself by working as a television producer for the BBC. He says that his influences are John Donne, Robert Frost, William Butler Yeats, and rock 'n' roll.

He's the author of many collections of poetry, including Moy Sand and Gravel (2002), which won the Pulitzer Prize, and Maggot (2010).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook

The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning
An interview with Jeffrey Harrison at The Writer's Almanac Bookshelf
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show
O, What a Luxury

Although he has edited several anthologies of his favorite poems, O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound forges a new path for Garrison Keillor, as a poet of light verse. Purchase O, What a Luxury »